Senator Russ Feingold at Bennington

Former Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold was a progressive champion on Capitol Hill for eighteen years before being ousted in the 2010 Tea Party election. His accomplishments while in office are numerous and monumental, from co-authoring the 2002 McCain-Feingold Act, which established major reforms of campaign finance laws, to being the only Senator to vote against the Patriot Act in 2001. He also served as one of the co-chairs of President Obama’s recently concluded re-election campaign. So naturally, I was pretty excited when I learned that Senator Feingold would be visiting my humble home away from home, Bennington College, to take part in a number of discussions and other events on campus over the course of two days this week.

I attended three of those events: a discussion yesterday led by Bennington faculty Erika Mijlin centered mostly around the American political scene, a classroom-style discussion this afternoon led by the indelibly kickass Mansour Farhang on foreign policy, and an interview tonight with Bennington president Liz Coleman. I especially enjoyed the first discussion, at which Senator Feingold’s brilliant ad from his first senatorial campaign in 1992, “Home Movies,” was screened. (I was somewhat less enthralled with this evening’s event, thanks to our esteemed president’s characteristically labored questions and insistence on injecting her own self-styled expertise into several topics). The Senator was full of candid, enlightening insights on a huge variety of questions, which was mind-blowingly refreshing in light of the sheer idiocy that typically populates the hallowed upper chamber.

I learned a tremendous amount, and I’m sure video and/or audio of some of the events will be made officially available at some point in the near future. However, for now, I will briefly list my three main takeaways from Senator Feingold’s visit.


1) Citizens United is severely fucked up. Not that I, or any semi-intelligent being, didn’t already know this. But hearing the Senator rail against the effects of the 2010 Supreme Court decision that paved the way for unlimited corporate contributions to political campaigns, was certainly eye opening. Since, as I mentioned, he was the co-author and, thus, namesake of the McCain-Feingold Act, campaign finance is an issue that the Senator has spent a lot of time and effort on during his career. And though the Citizens United decision actually didn’t dismantle the parts of McCain-Feingold that prohibit unlimited monetary donations to national political parties, the Senator described the decision using a metaphorical brick wall that represents campaign finance reform, McCain-Feingold as a single brick that filled a gaping hole in that wall, and Citizens United as a bulldozer that knocked over the whole wall, leaving only that single brick. The Senator lambasted the corruption inherent in a system where politicians from both parties are now able to call up corporate figures and ask for millions of dollars in donations, which he assured us is exactly how all this money is ending up in political coffers. He encouraged any aspiring journalists in the room who wanted to win a Pulitzer Prize to try to uncover what is said in some of these conversations, as doing so would be sure to result in the next great American political scandal (note well taken, Senator, but I have too many Ryan Adams albums to review to spend any time on that right now). He stressed the critical need for disclosure rules about these contributions to be passed legislatively. He did warn against tackling the issue by amending the constitution to specify that corporations are not, in fact, people, my friend, primarily because the practical unfeasibility of that route.


2) Everyone in the Senate is basically a moron when it comes to foreign policy. Senator Feingold characterized the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee as a rat’s nest of partisan hackery and know-nothingism (though in much more, erm, statesmanlike terms, of course). He explained that when any time is spent in our nation’s highest legislative body on foreign affairs, it’s almost exclusively on whatever the latest supposed crisis is (ie the recent Benghazi attacks) with almost no eye toward the long game or a deeper understanding of international issues. He also said that most Senators’ knowledge of these issues is so cursory or nonexistent that (and this is an actual quote, albeit paraphrased) that it only takes ten minutes of basic research to become the expert in the Senate on almost any given foreign policy issue. The Senator believes this has to do with unreasonable reactions from voters, many of whom apparently now believe that if an elected official spends too much time on international issues, then they’re not spending enough time on problems here. I’m pretty sure United States Senators are basically required to focus on issues both here and abroad, but maybe that’s just me. And maybe the government should keep its hands off my Medicare too. What do I know. Coincidentally (or not), Senator Feingold has a new book out, While America Sleeps: A Wake-up Call for the Post-9/11 Era, about how we can improve our grasp on and handling of foreign policy.


3) Wilson’s in Ephraim, Wisconsin is the best ice cream joint ever. After tonight’s event, I got the chance to shake the Senator’s hand. When I informed him that I used to take family vacations to Door County, which makes up the northern peninsula of his home state, he proceeded to extol the virtues of an enormous ice cream sundae he had recently eaten at Wisconsin’s premier burger/ice cream joint: Wilson’s in the small town of Ephraim. The Senator indicated that he had dined at Wilson’s several times before (as have I – I used to eat lunch and/or desert there every day for a week every summer for almost a decade) and we briefly commiserated over its awesomeness. See, some politicians do know right from wrong – even if only when it comes to where to eat.

Leave a Reply